We return today to master artist Jean Georges Vibert (1840-1902), who created a series of paintings illustrating the hypocrisy and greed of the church. Vibert specialized in genre scenes that underscored human weakness within the clergy – and while these views were often acidic, they were seldom vitriolic. These pictures became extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but he won special acclaim in the (then) free-thinking United States. He was actively collected by both the Astor and Vanderbilt families and today’s picture, The Canon’s Dinner (1875), was sold at auction as recently as November by Sotherby’s. Obviously Vibert continues to speak to us today.
As Vibert wrote about himself …you can’t deny that the priests who began my education recognized in me elocutionary talents, because they planned to make a preacher of me. Yes; I advise you to speak of the priests! You have profited handsomely by their teachings! They, at any rate, cannot be ignorant of your lively satire; you have made them feel the point of it enough. Haven’t you always said that a painter should paint only what he sees? It is not my fault if I have seen them at such close quarters.
By any critical yardstick, this is a remarkable picture. Vibert tells the story through meticulous detail mixed with his signature snarky wit. First off, the canon in the picture is a corpulent man, obviously well-used to his comforts. Notice how his slippered feet are spread apart, resting on the rail of his table. His ruddy face is lined but incandescent at the prospect of is good meal. His plate is not only filled with lobster, but also on the table are two bottles of wine. The tableware is silver and opulent – this is no simple meal.
Next to the canon is a tray resting on an elaborate table complete with what looks like duck, greens, gravy and perhaps a tureen of soup. The couch upon which he sits is beautifully upholstered, complete with an ornate overhang.
The room is appointed in luxurious detail. Note the tapestries that line the wall (delicately rendered by Vibert), along with the frescoes surrounding the door and the lush, Oriental carpet beneath his feet.
Vibert, of course, makes the joke complete with the canon’s companion. That worthy is dressed in simple robes of black, his slim (and probably underfed) figure upright on a kneeling bench, holy book before him. He is probably praying on behalf of the canon before he starts his meal, or, also likely, detailing some important part of church doctrine to his superior.
The differences between the two men could not be more startling: thick and thin, sensual and ascetic, gluttonous and abstemious, worldly and spiritual. However, the canon, who is clearly more ‘human’ in his enjoyment of the pleasures of the world, is undoubtedly higher in the church hierarchy, a hierarchy that values chastity, poverty, simplicity and self-denial. Like the canon’s dinner, Vibert’s joke is just too delicious.
One other point – the qualities of such a picture, and its degree of wit, would be lost without the artist’s extraordinary technical ability. Painted by, say, a Manet or Renior, the picture would merely become a study in colors, or perhaps a look at contrasts. But appreciating the extreme sensual pleasure and richness of the surroundings is essential to the joke, and that kind of delineation is only possible with an artist gifted at realistic detail.
More Vibert tomorrow!